Congressman Mike Rogers, who heads a key subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, says it’s time to create a military branch fully and completely dedicated to defending U.S. interests in space. “My vision for the future is a separate Space Force within the Department of Defense, just like the Air Force,” Rogers explains. “Space must be a priority, and it can’t be one if you jump out of bed in the morning thinking about fighters and bombers first.” Rogers says legislative moves toward creating a Space Corps or even a fully independent Space Force will begin “this year and next.” In short, it appears that standing up a military branch devoted solely to defending U.S. interests in—and conducting operations through and in—space is a matter of when not if.
It would be wrong to conclude that Congress and the Pentagon are steering America toward a military branch dedicated to space. To the contrary, Congress and the Pentagon are following U.S. interests into space.
Consider the most recent Space Foundation report, which reveals a global space economy of more than $323 billion—up from $261.6 billion in 2009. More than 221,500 Americans work in the space sector. U.S. government space spending was $44.6 billion in 2015 (the most recent year with available data), and non-government space spending by American firms was $32 billion that year. Of the 1,300 functioning satellites currently orbiting the earth, 568 are American.
Yet most Americans—fixated on their iPhones, eager to “explore” cyberspace rather than outer space, focusing on their hand-helds rather than the heavens—are oblivious to the fact that we depend on space for communications, commerce, air travel and ground transport, emergency services and most notably, for national security.
Missile-defense ships prowling the Pacific, ground troops patrolling Afghanistan, UCAVs circling over Iraq and Libya, JDAMs strapped to fighter-bombers loitering over Syria, sensors monitoring Russian, Chinese and North Korean nukes, the communications systems that connect troops, weapons, bases, allies and the National Command Authority, the infrastructure and superstructure of the entire military—all of this depends on space assets. We are fast approaching a day when space will become more than just a means to support military operations. It will become a theater of military operations. But don’t take my word for it. “In the coming period,” as a congressionally-appointed commission on space concluded more than a decade ago, “the U.S. will conduct operations to, from, in and through space.”
That helps explain why the Air Force space-related budget will increase by $1.5 billion in 2018, why the Pentagon’s entire space budget for 2017 is $22 billion, why the Pentagon recently renamed its Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center the National Space Defense Center, why the Air Force created a “Space Mission Force” last year and stood up a new office headed by a three-star general this year to advise the Air Force secretary and Air Force chief of staff on matters related to space, and why Air Force Space Command numbers some 20,000 personnel.
The Pentagon and its industry partners are using these organizations and resources to reorient America’s military, keep pace with America’s enemies, and conceive, test and deploy new assets for a new domain.
DARPA, for instance, has chosen Boeing to build a new experimental spaceplane, dubbed the XS-1, which will be capable of flying Mach 10 and delivering payloads of 3,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. “Ultimately, DARPA envisions from the XS-1 a fully reusable unmanned vehicle, the size of a business jet, which would take off vertically like a rocket and fly to hypersonic speeds,” Defense News reports. Scheduled to fly by 2020, the XS-1 will be able to deploy 10 times in a 10-day period.
Meanwhile, the Air Force X-37B spaceplane recently completed a record-setting 718-day orbit. As always, the mission was shrouded in secrecy. The Air Force is known to have two X-37Bs and has deployed them in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2017—each mission longer than the previous. The X-37Bs are probably used to deploy and test new satellite systems but may also be used to monitor, shadow and even disable enemy satellites.
“Air superiority depends on space superiority,” concludes Gen. Alex Grynkewich, who oversaw the Air Force’s Air Superiority 2030 study. Rogers and other policymakers believe space superiority depends on a military force structured to focus on space.
This is not a new idea. More than a decade ago, the space commission referenced above contemplated the establishment of a U.S. Space Corps within the Air Force, based on the Navy-Marine Corps model. Similarly, Rogers notes that the transformation now underway is “not dissimilar at all from the phenomena that occurred within the Army when the Army Air Corps ultimately became the Air Force.” He suggests that “getting from where we are now to a Space Force” could take “10 or 12 years.”
Given the actions of China and Russia, we may not have that much time to stand up a Space Corps or Space Force—or to settle the turf wars such a transformation is sure to trigger within the Pentagon.
A 2015 Pentagon report describes China’s space program as “the most rapidly maturing space program in the world.” A 2016 report adds, “PLA writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance…and communications satellites,’ suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to ‘blind and deafen the enemy.’”Toward that end, “The PLA is acquiring a range of technologies to improve China’s counter-space capabilities.”
China has conducted at least three test-deployments of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs): a 2007 test that purposely rammed a kill vehicle into an aging Chinese satellite; a 2014 test that demonstrated the same capability without creating a permanent minefield of space debris; and a 2013 test that send an ASAT into what published reports describe as ”ultra-high altitude… three-times higher than the weapon tested in 2007 and 2014.
Russia tested a new ASAT in 2015. In 2013 and 2014, the Russian military deployed a number of satellites capable of ”rendezvous and proximity operations” – military parlance for maneuvering around other satellites in order to disrupt or disable them. Russia recently deployed 37 satellites in a single rocket launch. And to remove any doubt about how Russia intends to use its space assets, Moscow announced in 2015 that Russia’s ”air forces, anti-air and anti-missile defenses and space forces will now be under a unified command structure” known as the Aerospace Forces.
In short, Russia and China are posturing their militaries to defend their interests – and exploit their capabilities – in space.
Finding a name for America’s next military branch – Aerospace Force, Space Corps and Space Force have been mentioned in various places – is secondary to ensuring that the Pentagon has a branch dedicated to defending U.S. interests and assets in space. For as Gen. Xu Qiliang, vice-commander of China’s Central Military Commission, observes, ”If you control space, you can also control the land and the sea.”